How one kitten-loving artist came to specialize in crafting couture hats out of dead raccoons and roosters.
At home, Beverly has a dog and two cats, Opal and an old guy named Frankie. “I’ve loved animals since I was a kid,” she says. “I’ve loved cats since I was a baby. So I want to be able to get close to them and touch them—and, in a twisted way, working with them post mortem allows that.”
Looking at death so often, so up close, has led her to become more conscious about the choices she makes, that we all make, in our lives. She frets about where to shop and what to eat and especially where meat and eggs come from. She feels weird eating “anonymous meat.” She spends a lot of time thinking about how, in short, to negotiate her territory with everyone else in the animal kingdom—without being like the buildings and the birds.
Not everyone sees it that way. Criticism doesn’t just come by way of meta-hipster-hate or traditional versus rogue taxidermists: Disapproving animal activists sometimes send nasty emails and leave salty comments on her blog, titled Skinned Deep. Since she’s not particularly interested in changing anyone’s mind, she leaves them there.
“[Some people] don’t want anyone using dead animals for anything,” she says. “But they also don’t want to think about where their Banana Republic shirt came from.”
Beverly’s always looking for her spot in the food chain, her comfort zone. This spring, for example, she’s going to take a trapping class to explore if she’s OK with sourcing animals that way, and to quell her anxiety from a recent experience where she purchased a trapped fox. Something didn’t sit right.
“The thing that made me uncomfortable is that I don’t know how that fox died,” she says.
Since she used the hide, she tried to eat the fox.
“I must have done something wrong, because it smelled horrible,” she says. “It tested a lot of comfort zones, like, ‘Technically, we’re about to eat dog . . . ’”
She plans to cook up fox again, though. “I want to try to eat all these obscure animals that people around the world eat,” she says.
It’s not a particularly easy, or pretty, process, recognizing boundaries. A scandal rocked the animal-stuffing world in 2011 when it was discovered that one of its pioneering iconoclasts, Miami-based taxidermist Enrique Gomez De Molina—known for combining animals to create Wuzzle-like hybrid sculptures, like a squirrel face screaming out of a crab body—had been harvesting and using endangered wildlife species in his work. He was arrested and sentenced to 20 months in federal prison. “I guess I like to play god,” he liked to say.
“That’s why people think taxidermists are sick, twisted people,” says Beverly, who once looked up to De Molina. “One bad apple.”
It’s another day in her Kensington studio. Beverly sits at her desk chatting. At a glance, it looks like she’s knitting, but what she’s doing is using a thin metal rod to push bits of clay down the length of an opossum’s severed forearm, stuffing it down into what can only be called a skin-sleeve, toward the hand.
The hands—they’re ghastly. Surely they’re what artists reference when creating werewolf gloves for horror-movie costumes. They have curled claws that burst haphazardly from the tops of the fingertips; the palm is a disk of bumpy flesh; ragged tufts of course, dishwater-gray fur line the wrists.
Of course, they’re beautiful and marvelous in the way everything under the sun, or this case, the moon, is. But staring at them, every cell in my body recoils in horror, and I remembered Beverly’s initial question: Do you get queasy at all?
Yes. Yes, I do. But Beverly does not.
“I think it’s cute!” she says, explaining that she’s making it into a charm as a gift for a friend. “I’m filling it with clay, and it will dry in the position I pose it in. I think I’m going to have it holding a gun, just because they have a weird sense of humor.”
“Oh,” she says. “Wait.” She looks through the shelves behind her, spins around and places an old glass olive jar on the desk. It is filled with liquid. In the liquid, clustered at the bottom of the jar, are opossum embryos. That opossum’s embryos.
“I was making the incision down the front,” she explains, “and then there was a hole in the stomach almost and something coming out, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is gross—maybe something was trying to eat this animal before my friends found it.’ I just kind of opened it up and saw that there was all these little babies inside.”
About two inches long, the embryos are smooth, milk-white creatures with slight indents—like fingerprints in dough—where eyes would’ve grown. Tiny pointy claws emerge from hands that reach out in phantom suckle embrace. Each one has a mouth, a tiny pinprick “O.”
Another unidentified chunk of flesh sits on the table. “That’s the tail,” she says, unfurling a triangular flap of skin, pointing out the way the skin looks like reptilian scales. “I don’t know what to do with this.”
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4